Peter Schey, a former immigrant rights advocate in Los Angeles, has died at the age of 77

(Los Angeles Times)

Peter Schey, a former immigrant rights advocate in Los Angeles, has died at the age of 77

Immigration and the Border, California Politics

Andrea Castillo

April 3, 2024

Peter Schey, who spent decades as an attorney in Los Angeles advocating for immigrant rights and led the case that overturned Proposition 187, the controversial initiative to deny government services to undocumented immigrants, died Tuesday at age 77 from complications related to lymphoma.

Schey, the founder and executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, led class action cases on behalf of immigrants over access to public education, medical care and the welfare of unaccompanied minors.

Born in South Africa to parents who fled Germany, his father was a Jewish anti-Nazi agitator

Schey moved to San Francisco with his parents as a teenager

they packed their things during


apartheid. He studies at UC Berkeley and California Western School of Law in San Diego.

After earning his law degree, Schey represented low-income immigrants at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego. In 1978, he founded the first national support center dedicated to protecting the rights of immigrants, now known as the National Immigrant Law Center.

He was lead attorney in Plyler vs. Doe, a landmark 1982 Supreme Court ruling that found that states cannot deny undocumented children access to free public education.

I feel moved when I encounter people who are suffering in some way that seems unnecessary, that seems to be the result only of the actions of some bureaucratic official or agency, Schey later told The Times.

Ten years later, in Flores vs. Reno, Schey fought to establish national minimum standards for the treatment of detained immigrant children and for limits on their duration. The case remains under the supervision of U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee in the Central District of California.

The Trump administration tried to eliminate the Flores settlement agreement, which allows attorneys to periodically inspect detention centers where children are held, but it was blocked in federal court.

Schey’s group filed a scathing report in 2018 with testimonies from more than 200 parents and children in California, Texas and other states who described cramped cells, cold or frozen food and a lack of basic hygiene products.

Schey also led the case against California’s 1994 law, Proposition 187, which sought to deny medical care, social services and education to people suspected of not having legal immigration status. League of United Latin American Citizens vs. Wilson prevented the law from ever taking effect, and mediation several years later formally invalidated it.

Prop. 187 was seen as a turning point in California politics, mobilizing Latinos to register to vote and contributing to a significant increase in the number of Democrats winning local and state elections. U.S. Senator Alex Padilla is one of many California leaders who say their political awakening came from their activism against Prop. 187.

In recent years, Schey became a controversial figure among immigrant advocates. As COVID-19 spread through detention centers in 2020, he came under fire from fellow advocates who disagreed with his position that incarcerated parents could choose between remaining incarcerated with their children or allowing their children to be left without them released. The other lawyers, from RAICES Texas and Aldea The People’s Justice Center, called the decision “a sanctioned family separation.”

And The Times reported in 2019 that Casa Libre, a shelter he founded for homeless migrant youth near MacArthur Park, did not meet standards for government-licensed group homes and neglected the children in its care.

“With Casa Libre, he just got in over his head,” says Schey’s ex-wife and close friend Melinda Bird. “We eventually convinced him to find another group to take charge.”

Father Richard Estrada, who had worked with Schey since his time as a chaplain to Spanish speakers at a Los Angeles juvenile detention center, said he disagreed with Schey’s approach to certain issues, such as the shelter. Still, he said Schey was an inspiring, courageous man.

“We have lost an icon of human rights,” Estrada said Wednesday.

According to his friends and colleagues, Schey was diagnosed with cancer late last year. Carlos Holguin, that one


worked with him since 1977, Schey said


underwent chemotherapy and his health had improved until the last days.

Holguin said that while the public knew Schey for his legal victories, friends knew him for smaller acts of kindness, such as the times he fed and cleaned up after a homeless man who was hanging out outside their office.

Schey was also complicated, Holguin said, extremely driven, a workaholic.

“I think I’m the only one who could manage to work with him for more than two or three years,” he said, chuckling. ‘None of us are perfect. But I never questioned the goodness of his heart.”

Although known for his work on immigrant rights, Schey has also taken on legal projects on other issues. Last year he returned to Africa for the first time since his family left to advocate at the United Nations for Maasai herders displaced by big game hunters. Upon his return in October, he contracted COVID-19. When the disease didn’t go away, he finally went to a doctor.

Bird said she was with him in his last days as friends


and former clients cycled in and out of the UCLA hospital room.

Also hanging in the room was a 2-by-1-meter photo of his late daughter Alexis, who died 10 years ago at the age of 28.

She became almost completely paralyzed and suffered an equipment failure after a catastrophic operation.

Her death was the greatest tragedy of his life, Bird said.

Before he found out the cancer had returned, Schey had returned to work, against everyone’s advice. He also made time to have fun when he attended a Sly and the Family Stone tribute band show with Bird a few weeks ago.

“When he first got sick in October and had all these tubes coming out of him, he said to me, ‘I’m so lucky,’” Bird recalls. “He maintained that attitude for the entire six months.”

Schey is survived by a sister, Nicky Arden, and two


children, Michael and Alyssa Schey.


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